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Indigenous Peoples Must Be at the Center of Global Conservation Efforts

July 21, 2021
By: Ben Reicher
A boma in the Ngorongoro District © The Oakland Institute
A boma in the Ngorongoro District © The Oakland Institute

At its annual meeting on July 16-31, 2021, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee will discuss protection of the world’s most priceless cultural landmarks. A critical issue for this discussion is whether the voice of Indigenous communities, for whom some of these protected areas are home, will be audible and considered. It is the responsibility of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and others in the field of nature protection to ensure that conservation does not come at the cost of Indigenous Peoples being alienated from their traditional lands and barred from continuing the agricultural and pastoral activities that they have relied on to survive for generations. As documented by the Oakland Institute, the ongoing evictions of the Maasai people from their lands in Tanzania exemplifies what is at stake for the conservation movement.

Evictions Under the Guise of Conservation

The Oakland Institute’s latest publication, The Looming Threat of Eviction: The Continued Displacement of the Maasai under the Guise of Conservation in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, is a provoking case study of the reasons behind the proposed displacement of Indigenous Maasai communities by the government of Tanzania. Evictions of the Maasai from their lands have been encouraged by international conservation organizations, under the banner of protection of so-called wild lands. The Oakland Institute challenges the paradigm that conservation in the developing world has traditionally operated under — one where protecting nature necessitates segregating it from human use — and demonstrates the need for a better strategy that ensures real agency to local people in decisions about use of natural resources.

Take Action Today & Stand With the Maasai


The Looming Threat of Eviction chronicles the hardships faced by the Maasai, a people native to the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania, due to the restrictions on agriculture and cattle herding imposed first by the German and British colonial governments, and then by the independent government of Tanzania. The Maasai suffered greatly under colonialism in the mid-to-late 19th century, with their land confiscated by the Europeans and their cattle decimated by rinderpest. In 1957, the Maasai agreed to vacate much of their ancestral lands in what is now northeastern Tanzania, allowing the British colonial government to create the world-famous Serengeti National Park. The Maasai resettled onto nearby land that was designated as the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), comprising over 800,000 hectares, where they were promised a seat at the table in any future decisions about how the land was to be governed.

Reneging on Promises of Representation for the Maasai in NCA

However, both the British and Tanzanian governments repeatedly reneged on the assurance of Maasai representation in the governance of the NCA. This especially intensified after the newly independent Tanzanian government issued the Arusha Manifesto in 1961, which resulted in an increased role for organizations like UNESCO and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in influencing government policy towards Ngorongoro, at the expense of Maasai voices being further suppressed. Up to the present day, Tanzania has continued to impose laws and regulations that severely restrict the activities that the Maasai have always depended on for their survival, including hunting, herding, and subsistence agriculture. Tanzanian authorities have confiscated cattle, uprooted home gardens, and destroyed homes as well as schools and health centers. Villagers who resist have faced arrest, as well as repeated instances of violence and harassment from the government.

Decades of marginalization has led to endemic poverty and malnutrition, with the Maasai communities of the NCA, consisting of tens of thousands of people, unable to support themselves on the land that has been left to them. In the words of one resident of the NCA (granted anonymity due to fears for their safety): “we are permanently starving because of bad policies.”

Multiple Land Use Model Plan Will Evict Thousands

Most recently, the Tanzanian government has developed a Multiple Land Use Model (MLUM) plan that would restrict even further the areas within the NCA where the Maasai are allowed to settle, and see thousands evicted to land that Maasai leaders say cannot sustain their traditional livelihoods. According to one Maasai elder quoted in the Oakland Institute’s report, the land that the MLUM designates for human habitation does not have “a single water stream.” A Maasai resident of the NCA told the Oakland Institute that residents “were not given a chance” to meaningfully present their input when the MLUM was being drafted, so that “the prepared report …does not include residents' opinions.”

The MLUM was, however, written with the support of and following consultations with international organizations like UNESCO World Heritage Center, the IUCN, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). A March 2019 mission report by these three groups urged Tanzanian authorities to “implement stringent policies to control population growth [in the NCA].” This is in keeping with their common refrain of growth of the Indigenous population as a threat to conservation; as recently as its 2020 World Heritage Outlook assessment, the IUCN described the “increase in the resident population alongside their livestock and the socio-cultural changes” as the greatest threat to the ecosystems of the NCA.

The Oakland Institute’s reporting demonstrates how the policies pushed by conservation organizations are not only highly destructive for the Maasai way of life, but hypocritical as well. Even as they push to abrogate the Maasai’s land rights, these institutions do not intend for the land to be left in a completely untouched state. The MLUM envisions that the “protection” of the NCA will boost the area’s appeal for international wildlife tourism — UNESCO has in the past even advocated for evicting all inhabitants of the NCA while preserving the bomas, structures that the Maasai have traditionally built as housing and as enclosures for cattle, for their tourist value. As the MLUM explicitly acknowledges, by “maintaining the status quo or leaving the NCA to Indigenous pastoralists the government would lose 50 percent of expected revenue by 2038.”

Tourism is one of Tanzania’s most lucrative industries, constituting over 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2019. Annual tourism in the NCA increased from around 20,000 visitors in 1979 to over 600,000 in the last few years. Large numbers of tourists from around the world would arguably be far more disruptive to the NCA’s unique ecosystems than the traditional subsistence activities of the Maasai, who have accumulated generations of knowledge about how to use the land sustainably.

The Influence on Conservationists of the “Tragedy of the Commons”

The saga of the Maasai people in Ngorongoro, and the role of international conservationists in their displacement, exemplifies everything wrong with the model that conservationism has followed for decades. At the core of that model is the “tragedy of the commons”, as developed by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s, where any resource held in common (like forests or grazing lands) will inevitably be exhausted by individuals who always act in their immediate self-interest, and have no incentive to use resources sustainably. Hardin influenced conservationists to develop a view of Indigenous Peoples as inherently adversarial, and of the activities that communities have relied on throughout their history to feed themselves as a critical obstacle to protecting the environment. (A less well-known fact about Hardin is that he was heavily involved in white nationalist causes.) Hardin’s ideological impact can be seen in both the Tanzanian government and international organizations’ emphasis on controlling population growth as a conservation strategy, effectively declaring that an idealized image of a pristine landscape is more important than very real human livelihoods.

The inevitability of the tragedy of the commons is refuted by the groundbreaking research of Elinor Ostrom (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics), who documented extensive case studies of communities worldwide making agreements to sustainably share common resources so that all can benefit. Communities have made agreements throughout history to regulate use of shared resources, before privatization or putting aside land for conservation became common practice — as the Maasai’s generations of stewardship in the NCA demonstrates. Ostrom outlines eight principles for effective community management of shared resources, among them “rules should fit local circumstances” and “participatory decision-making is vital.” Essentially, local people must be viewed not as opponents but as active participants; they must be empowered to make their own decisions about rules that ultimately affect their lives more than anyone’s, and to use the traditional knowledge that has proven effective throughout their history.

Maasai Land Use In NCA

Community meeting organized by a local NGO.
Community meeting organized in 2011 by a local NGO — image courtesy of organization.

In its report, the Oakland Institute cites numerous analyses finding that the use of the land by the Maasai has not harmed the natural environment of the NCA; in fact, the report notes that in many cases the failure to follow the Maasai’s traditional practices about maintaining the land has contributed to environmental degradation. A prime example is the reduction of periodic controlled burns that the Maasai historically used to remove pests and invasive plant species from their grazing lands, which has reduced the plant diversity of grasslands in the NCA and made them less hospitable for both livestock and wild animals. Whenever their opinion has been solicited, the Maasai have only asked to be allowed to continue protecting the land as they always have, and to make the improvements to their lives that most people take for granted.

In a series of focus group discussions with NCA residents held by the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, participants’ demands (which the MLUM failed to incorporate) included that they be allowed to access adequate grazing land for cattle and practice subsistence cultivation in order to address the ongoing hunger crisis. Maasai residents of the NCA further requested “more social services in terms of water, health facilities, schools and electricity;” the ability to make “improvements to their homes;” “involvement in all issues which affect community livelihoods;” and “compensation for livestock depredation and human attacks.”

The Oakland Institute’s report makes clear that the global conservation movement must adopt a different mindset that recognizes the political and economic empowerment of Indigenous communities as an essential component of environmental protection. What is the environment, ultimately, if not where people live? Conservation in places like Ngorongoro cannot be truly successful for all involved parties, without listening to the people who live there.